President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) called for an unremitting defense of country’s sovereignty and democracy during her National Day address on October 10, emphasizing that national unity was essential if Taiwan is to successfully counter China’s intensifying coercive campaign. Directly referring to the mounting discord in Hong Kong, which has experienced months-long spasms of violence on the streets, the Taiwan president underscored the unviability of Beijing’s “one country, two systems” (一國兩制) formula for Taiwan. “The overwhelming consensus among Taiwan’s 23 million people is our rejection of ‘one country, two systems,’ regardless of party affiliation or political position,” she said.
“One Country, Two Systems” Not an Option
“The Republic of China has stood tall on Taiwan for over 70 years,” President Tsai continued. “But if we were to accept ‘one country, two systems,’ there would no longer be room for the Republic of China’s existence. As President, standing up to protect national sovereignty is not a provocation—it is my fundamental responsibility.” Besides fringe elements such as the China Unification Promotion Party (CUPP) and the New Party (新黨), parties across Taiwan’s political spectrum have rejected the “one country, two systems” offer.
Yet, the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) continues to affirm that the key to reducing tensions in the Taiwan Strait is to recommit to the “1992 Consensus” (九二共識) and that adherence thereto would not lock Taiwan down the path to “one country, two systems.” Critics of such an approach, President Tsai included, have countered that following Chinese Communist Party Secretary-General Xi Jinping’s (習近平) January 2 address to “Taiwanese compatriots, the “1992 Consensus” and “one China” (一個中國) clause have become coterminous with the unpalatable “one country, two systems” formula, which Xi maintains is the only possible offer to Taiwan, notwithstanding signs of its failing in the former British colony.
Su Chi (蘇起), now among the group of advisers to KMT presidential candidate Daniel Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) and the politician who in 2000 invented the term “1992 Consensus,” claimed recently that the ruling party has misrepresented the “1992 Consensus” by linking it to “one country, two systems.” Xi’s intransigence on the “one country, two systems” formula, however, means that any arrangement with “one China” at its core could eventually lead to that construct. In other words, to argue that “one country, two systems” does not reflect the spirit of the “1992 Consensus” requires a suspension of disbelief that Taiwan, facing a determined aggressor, cannot afford. Moreover, the Taiwan side’s ability to insist upon “different interpretations” of “one China” has also been eroded, largely due to the fact that the CCP—and the People’s Republic of China (PRC)—regard themselves as successor regimes to the Republic of China (ROC) rather than co-equals.
Amid overwhelming public opposition to “one country, two systems” and in the light of the debacle in Hong Kong SAR, no political party in Taiwan hoping to prevail in the January 2020 elections could afford to present the formula as a viable option for Taiwan and/or the ROC. Han, regarded by some as a favorite of Beijing, has himself declared his view that “one country, two systems” is not a viable option for Taiwan; and on October 10, he went even further, stating that “Taiwan lacks conditions for either unification with or independence from mainland China,” adding that the current generation “has no right to choose for the next generation. Our generation’s responsibilities are trying hard to create conditions for Taiwan to be more powerful and peaceful.” Such views went directly against Xi’s strong willed statement on January 2, where he said that the dispute between the two sides—and its resolution in the form of unification—“cannot be passed on from generation to generation.”
Unity, Unity, Unity
President Tsai then switched to national unity, stating that “we must ensure that the people continue to remain united under the banner of freedom and democracy to defend our sovereignty,” adding that “we cannot be divided amongst ourselves, regardless of party affiliation.”
“No one has a patent on the Republic of China, and no one can monopolize Taiwan. The words ‘Republic of China (Taiwan)’ are not the exclusive property of any one political party, and that is the overwhelming consensus of Taiwan society,” she said.
Amid “China’s rise and expansion, as they challenge free, democratic values and the global order through a combination of authoritarianism, nationalism, and economic might […], Taiwan has become the first line of defense for democratic values.” To counter this challenge, she said:
we must remain united. Though disputes have risen in our society due to differences among ethnicities, generations, faiths, and political views, I am certain that we can find the greatest common denominator among us through dialogue … We must also hold firm our values of freedom and democracy. The Taiwanese people walked the difficult path to democratization together, and though it may sometimes be tumultuous, only democracy can ensure our hard-won freedom and offer the next generation the right to choose their own future.
Here again, there was little to disagree with, although some KMT politicians, subsequent to Tsai’s address, argued that the ruling party has not done enough to ensure that collaboration between parties can be realized; it goes without saying that the main opposition party has, for its own parochial reasons, also engaged in behavior which has prevented the emergence of a truly bipartisan spirit. For example, KMT lawmakers have used various measures to prevent the passage at the Legislative Yuan of long-overdue national security regulations (a “Foreign Agents Bill”) that would help defend the nation’s democratic institutions against subversion and China’s “sharp power.”
A few other critics in the blue camp, meanwhile, zeroed in on the president’s use of the term “Republic of China (Taiwan)” to describe the nation, arguing that she ought to have limited herself to the official name of the country—the ROC (others nevertheless welcomed her use of the term Republic of China throughout her speech, which they lamented had been missing in previous years).
Tsai’s speech, perhaps, was intended to appeal to the greatest common denominators within Taiwanese society—freedom and democracy, and opposition to “one country, two systems”—while wisely using a combination of “Taiwan,” “Republic of China” and “Republic of China (Taiwan)” to refer to the nation. In so doing, she is widening the tent of the people whom she represents as the head of state. Although references to, and uses of symbols associated with, the ROC raises heckles among a number of Taiwanese—especially those who suffered under authoritarian KMT rule—President Tsai’s appeal to overarching support for freedom and democracy, and her equating of the ROC with Taiwan made it difficult for anyone to disagree with the contents of her speech. Whether one identifies with the ROC or Taiwan, in the president’s mind the two are the same, joined, as it were, in their opposition to external pressure on unification and “one country, two systems” and, just as important, in their embrace of the values which define the nation.
The overwhelming majority of politicians in Taiwan agree on the fundamentals of freedom, democracy, and the territory that now defines their nation; politicking and a focus on short-term (often electoral) matters have often given the impression of extremely divergent views and disunity. It is important for a president to remind people that, differences aside, the foundations are solid. Her Double Ten address did that.
Taiwan’s International Presence
President Tsai also pointed to Taiwan’s growing role in international affairs. “Taiwan is responsible and willing to contribute, and we have become an indispensable force for good in maintaining regional peace and stability,” she said. “We will continue to work hand-in-hand with like-minded countries to achieve more opportunities for substantive cooperation.” Those remarks, and the spirit in which they were made, were highly praised in the United States, with members of Congress stating that “we reaffirm America’s steadfast, bipartisan support for the fundamental rights of Taiwan’s people and our shared democratic values.”
Some critics have accused the Tsai administration of over-reliance on the United States, which they warn could cost Taiwan should a new, less amenable administration occupy the White House in the future. Perhaps President Tsai should have spent more time in her address demonstrating the many achievements that have been made between Taiwan and the “like-minded countries” she alluded to. While American leadership has and will continue to be essential for any effort to expand Taiwan’s international participation, there nevertheless has been substantial progress in Taiwan’s engagement with other major democracies, where support, in part due to China’s belligerent attitude, has been building over the years. Taipei cannot count on Beijing remaining self-defeatingly undiplomatic forever, nor can it take continued US assistance for granted; but in the current context, it has quietly been building and solidifying a network of partners around the world that will help Taiwan withstand China’s coercive efforts against it.
The main point: President Tsai’s address to the nation provided a clear statement of purpose on defending the nation and its democratic institutions, and reaffirming Taiwan’s opposition to “one country, two systems,” while emphasizing the need for unity in meeting those challenges.